Pimco's 'death of equities' error

What Bill Gross missed when he recently declared the death of equities is that stock market returns are independent of underlying economic growth.

Bill Gross, famed bond investor and managing director of one of the world’s largest investment companies, PIMCO, has recently turned his hand to forecasting equity returns. ‘The cult of equity is dying’, Gross tells us in Business Spectator.

‘Dead’ might be a better way of putting it. I have never seen less interest in equities as a place for Australians’ savings. Fortunately, for those of us left, the rest of Gross’s argument for significantly lower equity returns is seriously flawed.

His starting point is that equities have indeed been an exceptional place to be invested for the past 100 years:

"[The history shows a] rather different storyline, one which overwhelmingly favours stocks over a century’s time – truly the long run. This long-term history of inflation adjusted returns from stocks shows a persistent but recently fading 6.6 per cent real return (known as the Siegel constant) since 1912 that Generations X and Y perhaps should study more closely."

So far, so good for equity investors. But Gross then goes on to dash hopes of a return to anything like these returns in future:

"Yet the 6.6 per cent real return belied a commonsensical flaw much like that of a chain letter or yes – a Ponzi scheme. If wealth or real GDP was only being created at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent over the same period of time, then somehow stockholders must be skimming 3 per cent off the top each and every year. If an economy’s GDP could only provide 3.5 per cent more goods and services per year, then how could one segment (stockholders) so consistently profit at the expense of the others (lenders, labourers and government)?

"The commonsensical 'illogic' of such an arrangement when carried forward another century to 2112 seems obvious as well. If stocks continue to appreciate at a 3 per cent higher rate than the economy itself, then stockholders will command not only a disproportionate share of wealth but nearly all of the money in the world! Owners of 'shares' using the rather simple 'rule of 72' would double their advantage every 24 years and in another century’s time would have 16 times as much as the sceptics who decided to skip class and play hooky from the stock market."

He explains some of this excess return as a function of leverage – owners of debt are prepared to accept a lower return for their increased security, and that leaves more for equity holders. But he need not have bothered. It’s Gross’s logic that belies a commonsensical flaw, not the numbers.

There is in fact no correlation between GDP growth and stock market returns. If anything, the correlation is negative. Don’t believe me? Read The Growth Illusion in The Economist, where two separate studies completely debunk the ‘growth equals returns’ argument:

"Alas, this is not the case. Work done by Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton at the London Business School established this back in 2005. Over the 17 countries they studied, going back to 1900, there was actually a negative correlation between investment returns and growth in GDP per capita, the best measure of how rich people are getting. In a second test, they took the five-year growth rates of the economies and divided them into quintiles. The quintile of countries with the highest growth rate over the previous five years, produced average returns over the following year of 6 per cent; those in the slowest-growing quintile produced returns of 12 per cent. In a third test, they looked at the countries and found no statistical link between one year's GDP growth rate and the next year's investment returns.

"Paul Marson, the chief investment officer of Lombard Odier, has extended this research to emerging markets. He found no correlation between GDP growth and stockmarket returns in developing countries over the period 1976-2005."

Still don’t believe me? Think about what Gross’s argument implies at the other end of the spectrum. Imagine an economy that doesn’t grow at all and doesn’t have any inflation. You own all of the equity in this economy, you paid 10 times earnings for your investment and it returns all of its profit to you every year as dividends. The economy doesn’t grow and the profitability doesn’t change for the next 100 years.

Does that mean your return will be zero? Of course not. Your return will be 10 per cent, despite the economy not growing one iota.

Equity returns are all about return on capital, a function of the price you pay and the return generated on capital retained by the companies you invest in and not returned to you as dividends. Economic growth has nothing to do with it.

Gross’s mistake is to confuse equity market returns with equity market growth. It is impossible for a stock market to grow faster than its economy indefinitely. But it is perfectly plausible for equities to provide a rate of return higher than economic growth indefinitely.

What to expect for equity returns from here

Gross is right in one important respect. Twisting past returns into golden rules is a sure-fire way to lose money. ‘Stocks are better than bonds’. ‘Property is better than stocks’. ‘Cash is king’. Whatever your golden rule, it’s a stupid one.

The moment any investing strategy becomes accepted as superior, it becomes self-destructive. At the right price, any asset can provide a better return than any other. At the wrong price, you’ll lose money even if there is a thousand years of data behind you.

If you want real returns, you need to own real assets, purchased at an appropriate price. Property or equities, it needs to be something that is yours, to keep, irrespective of how much inflation, deflation or economic growth there is. Holding cash might seem prudent today but, long term, it is almost certain to erode your real wealth.

The good news is that, from today’s prices, your returns on a well-constructed equities portfolio will be perfectly acceptable. The average industrial stock trades on a price/earnings ratio of about 13 times.
If that can be maintained – after these past few years of semi-recession, that looks a reasonable assumption – you’ll earn something like 7 per cent on your money through dividends and sensibly reinvested profits. Grossed up for franking credits, perhaps 9-10 per cent pre-tax equivalent.

In real terms we’re talking roughly 6 per cent. There’s nothing to suggest it’s going to be a nice, smooth ride, but the Siegel constant isn’t done with yet.

Steven Johnson is Chief Investment Officer at Intelligent Investor Funds Management